A hawkish line on North Korea
Despite a concerted international effort since the start of the year to soothe
heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, the South Korean government is
bracing for a different type of aggravation from Pyongyang: terrorism, perhaps.
Nothing is certain, of course. But if these fears were to be justified, it would
reopen one of the darkest chapters in the fratricidal north-south relationship since
the 1950-53 Korean war.
Mr Lee’s determination to launch a disproportionately strong response in the
event of another North Korean attack (like the one on Yeongpyeong island in
November) was no empty threat. “This is the best way to keep the peace and
avoid war,” he said.
North Korea has already caught South Korea’s message and because of this it will
not choose to make any aggression in the daytime or in the open space that
everyone knows the source of. South Korea is looking at many other possibilities,
such as terrorism and other kinds of provocations, other than military means.
Elsewhere in the government people speculate that such shadowy threats could
include assassinations or the use of biological warfare.
The tone in Seoul, when it comes discussing the dangers from North Korea,
remains strikingly hawkish, not least because many fear that the succession
between Kim Jong Il and his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, is not yet consolidated.
The youngster may need to perform more acts of belligerence to shore up his
credibility in the eyes of the trigger-happy army. What’s more, higher food prices
may make the internal situation in the penniless North even more fragile, not
least if China has to go easy on the handouts it provides to its allies in Pyongyang
in order to preserve its own foodstocks.
It was no comfort that North Korea pulled out of military-to-military talks with the
south on February 9th , even though, as one official put it, weeks before it had
been engaged in “peace offensives” with all-and-sundry. The stumbling point was
North Korea’s refusal to discuss the sinking last March of the Cheonan, which
South Korea and many of its allies blame on the North. It is not surprising
Pyongyang finds that a big hurdle, because it denies torpedoing the Cheonan. But
it can hardly have expected South Korea, which lost 46 men as a result of its
sinking, to shrug it off.
Some are hoping that the North will return to military-to-military talks after
South Korea and the United States hold 11 days of joint military operations due
to start on February 28th. But if not, South Korea will be on heightened alert. If it
is terrorism they are worried about, North Korea has form. In 1987 a Korean Air
flight from Baghdad to Seoul was bombed by two agents apparently acting on
orders from “Dear Leader” Kim, with a resulting loss of 115 lives. In 1983 North
Korean agents attempted to assassinate South Korea's then-president while he
was visiting Myanmar. (They missed their mark, but killed 21 other people and
lost the hermit kingdom its welcome in Myanmar.) Since those dark days the
threat seemed to recede and in 2008 George Bush’s administration removed
North Korea from Washington’s list of states reckoned to sponsor terrorism.
These new rumblings from Seoul would seem to push in a different direction.